SoniYoga in Western Culture
Yoga: Theory Culture & Practice
27 February, 2013
SoniYoga is a small yoga studio located in Cambridge, MA. The owner, Soni, created the studio in 2007 to help reflect her own Ayurveda and Vastu practices; and her belief of living in harmony with nature. The history of SoniYoga relies equally on Soni’s husband, David, as it does on Soni herself. David travelled when he was younger and while working with the Peace Corps he met and married Soni in Fiji (“SoniYoga”, n.d). In 2000 David first experienced yoga and it became a dominant force in his life. After this point David became a corporate business man who incorporates the principles of yoga with technology management (“SoniYoga”, n.d).
Ayurveda, one of the aspects of Soni’s lifestyles, “originated in India more than 5,000 years ago and is the oldest continuously practiced health-care system in the world. Ayurveda is the science of nature, largely preventative medicine, enhancing self-awareness to help us make choices that support well-being. The system encourages us to catch imbalance before it begins to create disease” (“What is Ayurveda”, 2013). This practice is taught at SoniYoga through individual consultations with an Ayurvedic counselor and then adapting to a personalized Ayurvedic lifestyle.
Vastu, the second aspect of Soni’s lifestyle is “the ancient science of design and architecture, originated during the Vedic Civilization…Vastu [is] arguably the world’s oldest holistic design system…shows us how to create interior spaces so that they honor the rhythms that control the universe and establish harmony with ourselves and nature” (“Vastuliving”, n.d). This lifestyle is influenced in SoniYoga with the color scheme chosen for the studio. The studio is painted soft, warm, natural colors and the studio is dimly lit with a red hue. There are multiple plants and small fountains, and the open space given for classes is wood and surrounded by natural light.
The studio’s mission statement claims, “SoniYoga is your home. We are dedicated to you; to help you strengthen, heal, grow, and to learn more about the essential you. We provide a joyful practice of yoga designed for all shapes, sizes and fitness levels. Rather then following a regimented series of postures, our practices will flow like water laughing down the stream bed from one pose to another. We will focus on breath and proper alignment to increase body awareness, flexibility, strength, and coordination; and try to challenge you in each yoga class to go a little further, to try something new, to learn something new about yourself. It’s not about the poses, it’s about you!” (“SoniYoga”, n.d).
SoniYoga offers classes that are mostly based on Hatha Yoga. They offer classes which are private or in small groups, and are geared for a variety of experiences and abilities. The types of classes offered include: Hatha Yoga (Hatha basics, Hatha-all levels, Hatha Flow, and Yoga Stretch), Healing Yoga (focused on the treatment of people with chronic pain), Kundalini (incorporates breathing, yoga postures, mantras, mundras and meditation to stimulate specific areas of the body’s energy, hormonal, circulatory or physical systems), Restorative Yoga (uses props to support postures, relaxes and reinvigorates the body and mind), and Yin & Yang Yoga (Preparing for deep meditation, and then focus on movement and breath to keep the mind still).
One of the Restorative Yoga classes, “Gentle Yoga”, is described as “For those needing relief from stress or pain, come to relax, breathe and take a gentle approach to postures. We will practice yoga asana mostly on the floor to stretch and strengthen muscles in a safe manner. We will also do meditation, relaxation and Pranayama (yoga breathing)” (“SoniYoga”, n.d.). After attending this class I noticed that culture influenced the practice greatly.
The 11:30am Saturday class catered to people who were enjoying the end of their workweek and looking for a relief from the stresses of life. The class consisted of all white upper class women, ranging from early 20’s to mid 60’s in age, and the class offered multiple props to help support these women in their poses. The support props included blankets, soft blocks, and rolling pillows. During the practice there was soft music playing in the background and most of the women came prepared wearing tight clothing and had high-end yoga mats. From a cultural perspective, it is not surprising that this was the environment that the studio supported. In the description of the class it was stated that Pranayama would be included in the practice. It is believed in hatha yoga that if you can control the prana, the mind is automatically controlled (Personal Notes, 2013). The Gentle Yoga class helped with flexibility and stress relief, but the women who attended the class seemed mostly concerned with their ability to achieve their poses physically and less on being able to regulate their breathing or keep a still mind.
From my observations, it appears that Americans use the “healing” aspects of the yoga practices as a selling point to gain attention, but also appear to focus on the physical portion of the practice to keep clients there; telling them that they will “better themselves” physically by doing yoga . The teacher, Molly, would narrate through the practice, saying things like, “use the breath as an ocean that washes through and relaxes the body,” but Molly herself was wearing tight clothing and did not participate in all of the poses or breathing exercises.
To conclude her class, molly had all of the participants put their hands together at their hearts and say “Namaste”, which I learned has multiple meanings. During a brief interview with Molly, she stated that, “Namaste is recognizing the light in oneself and in others. It is also a way of greeting someone depending on the translation you use” (Personal Interview, 2013). This translation of Namaste being the recognition of the light in oneself relates to Krishnamurti, who speaks of this “light” as well. Krishnamurti claims that, “One must be free to be completely a light to oneself…this light cannot be given by another, nor can you light it at the candle of another. If you light it at the candle of another, it is just a candle, it can be blown out” (Krishnamurti, 111). This could be applied to using the term “Namaste” in the sense that during yoga practice we are aiming to become a light in oneself, but Krishnamurti would most likely disagree with the fact that we are using this translation of Namaste to conclude a group yoga session and to recognize other people’s lights as well. Krishnamurti is focused on meditation and in order to achieve being a light in oneself, you must go through vigorous steps to free yourself from things like authority, and you must be able to observe the “now”. The concept of having an increased awareness of oneself appeared to be valid for the class, but Molly did not explain the meaning of Namaste to the group, so they just repeated it and left. This is cultural because yoga in America is not concerned with understanding the individual meaning of the words that are shared in class but more so on how they make participants feel while hearing them. The closing remark of “Namaste” appeared to be comforting and therefore there was no concern for understanding anything greater about it.
The concept of using Namaste as a symbolic bridge of Western Hatha Yoga practice and Eastern Hatha Yoga practice is especially evident in a woman named Kate Potter, who created “Namaste Yoga”. Potter is a Buddhist who has been a yoga teacher for 18 years and created a DVD collection of her practices that is aired in the United States as well as in Canada. Namaste Yoga is an example of how Western culture has commercialized yoga and created practices that are based on Eastern yoga beliefs, but are sold to the people almost as a form of therapy that is supposed to “better” oneself. Namaste Yoga’s site states, “Namaste Yoga offers a complete yoga practice for people who want to become fitter, live healthier, and be happier. With Namaste Yoga, you can experience what yoga at home should feel like: stunning visuals, soothing music, and entirely original movement sequences that will claim the mind, strengthen the body, and inspire the soul” (“Namaste”, 2013). This demonstrates that the value of the yoga practice in these DVDs is not about finding the light in oneself through meditation or being able to still the mind through movement, but instead is about “you!” and how it can make “you!” feel better about yourself.
One of the most obvious cultural influences noticeable in the demonstration video of Potter’s Namaste Yoga practice is how all three participants are young, white women who are all wearing almost no clothes and are incredibly fit. They use yoga mats wherever they are located, and are shown going through different poses with ease and showing no tension or struggling. This concept conflicts with what is practiced in Eastern Cultures because in those cultures it is not about how you look while practicing, or how comfortable you are in the pose, it is about unifying yourself with your mind, spirit and body. Even using the title of “Namaste” for the DVD collection is an example of commercialism of yoga ideas and practices because it takes a term that is supposed to be meaningful and a way of recognizing the light in oneself, and instead turns it into a selling point. When watching the DVDs it is obvious that Potter has a target audience of young white females who are looking for ways to boost their self esteem and achieve something physically.
Potter’s DVDs connect to SoniYoga because they both used the term “Namaste” in a vague way. Instead of explaining the core meaning of Namaste and why it should be our goal during practice to achieve the light it speaks of, they use it as a way of convincing the participants that they have an authentic practice. Although SoniYoga is based on Soni’s past experiences with hatha yoga, the studio is not exempt from commercialization.
Overall, SoniYoga offers a glimpse of what yoga practice is like in a Western Culture. Although Soni’s roots are Eastern, the studio that she created does not completely reflect her own beliefs. Through the gentle yoga class I was able to observe the population that the studio caters to, and relate my observations to the theory, culture, and practice of yoga. The use of “Namaste” was a cultural symbol that was intended to bridge both the Eastern and Western perspectives of yoga, but ultimately appeared to be more of a selling point than a true representation of the Eastern beliefs. In the future I would like to attend more classes at SoniYoga and continue my observations, in hope of seeing more of an authentic practice and less of the commercialized concern with body image and how yoga can “better” you.
Ayurveda - Ayurveda Boston. (n.d.). Ayurveda Boston. http://www.ayurvedaboston.com/ayurveda
Krishnamurti, J. (1999). Light in Oneself. This light in oneself: true meditation (p. 111). Boston: Shambhala.
Namaste Yoga | About Namaste Yoga. (n.d.). Namaste Yoga | Namaste Hatha Yoga Practice by Kate Potter, DVDs, Videos, Learning Materials. http://www.namaste.tv/pages/about-namaste
SoniYoga. (n.d.). SoniYoga. http://www.soniyoga.com/cm/Home.html
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